Lionel Trilling Trilling, Lionel (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lionel Trilling 1905–1975

American critic, novelist, short story writer, and editor.

Trilling has had a significant influence on the American literary world. As an educator he was associated with Columbia University for over forty years; as an editor and essayist he was an influential contributor to Partisan Review and The Ken-you Review; as a critic-biographer he placed Matthew Arnold, E. M. Forster, and Sigmund Freud in the liberal-humanist tradition which inspired his own work.

Trilling examined the influences of philosophy, sociology, history, and psychology on works of art. A cautious liberal, he refrained from adopting any specific ideology but had a continuing interest in the study of "the existence of the self apart from culture." It was Freud, Trilling felt, who dealt most effectively with this issue. As a result, Trilling placed significant emphasis on psychoanalysis in his critical writings. In addition, he maintained that the creation of the work of art frees the individual from the "tyranny of culture in the environmental sense."

(See also CLC, Vols. 9, 11 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., Vols. 61-64 [obituary].)

R.W.B. Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The words we encounter most frequently in the essays of Lionel Trilling are: flexibility, variety, difficulty, possibility, modulation. They are the marks of Mr. Trilling's mind, which is capable at once of more range and more exactness than almost any other critic in America today; they are also, one may say, the burden of his song…. In his disciplined inspection of literature, old and new, we find Mr. Trilling irresistibly drawn toward any writing in which tensions serve to expand the world…. Mr. Trilling, whose style is rarely over-spirited, gravitates more willingly toward an earlier writer like Montaigne, who genially upset an entire system of thought by his rambling insistence upon the "dissemblable," and who was pleased by the man from Delphos because he could even tell one egg from another.

But it is not, primarily, the scholastic proponents of eggness, of the one, the simple and the same, whom Mr. Trilling studies to correct. In his adverse reports, he is concerned rather with the contemporary poets and novelists, psychologists and critics and social statisticians who have looked at our experience and have seen too little of it: who have managed to reduce experience, to make it thinner and narrower than it is or needs to be—who have impoverished it, in their account. Oversimplification is the theme of a number of essays [in The Liberal Imagination]. The sin of reduction is charged with some regret against those stories of Sherwood Anderson in which there is virtually "no social experience at all." The quite different enterprise of the authors of the Kinsey Report is, in a quiet but devastating review, found lacking in the awareness of "any idea that is in the least complex." Even Freud nods, Mr. Trilling maintains, when he restricts the effect of a play like Hamlet to a single source and mode: an unnecessary, schematic contraction of the mystery of dramatic experience. And in the literary history of Vernon Parrington and the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Mr. Trilling detects an inadequacy of perception, of a sort unhappily common with the liberal mind—an assumption about "reality" which delimits the real by excluding from it the mental, the moral, the shadowy, the ambiguous.

A right perception of reality is a major aim of these essays, and no doubt the unifying terms I have mentioned help define both the quality of perception and the nature of the thing perceived. I am not sure I can say anything very enlightening about Mr. Trilling's own idea of reality, he conceals it so gracefully. It evidently touches mind as well as matter, morality as well as economy; it is seemingly large, it contains multitudes, it contradicts itself. It resists formulation. But if the content of the real is richly obscure (and I seriously suspect that this is almost a doctrinaire richness, and that the tendency to hide is in the nature of the idea and is involved with its definitive refusal to be defined), still, the locus or habitat can be uncovered. Reality, whatever its character, has to do with society; it is to be looked for amidst the actions and interactions of men, and there only; it must be talked about, if at all, in terms of the felt motion of social organizations toward certain ends. The social, properly understood, is the real; and to the real, consequently, the ambiguous and the conceptual must be admitted, for they are undeniable factors in the motivation of men. In saying so, I do not imagine that I am doing anything more than repeating that Mr. Trilling is a humanist; for what identifies the humanist in any age is the habit of subsuming metaphysics under politics—of translating questions about...

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R. P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[We see in Mr. Trilling's The Liberal Imagination] that he cultivates a mind never entirely his own, a mind always deliberately to some extent what he understands to be the mind of society, and also a mind always deliberately to some extent the mind of the old European society taken as corrective and as prophecy. He is always aware, to use one of his phrases, of the cost of civilization. He knows the price of glory and the price of equity; that the price of one may be the expense of the other; that the two are incompatible; and that both prices must be paid. He knows; or at any rate he knows that he does not know. I suppose that if he accepted this language at all, he would allow that this knowledge represents the Human price; and he might go on that this is why he has cut down on tykish impulses and wild insights, why he insists on using a mind never entirely his own.

He has always wanted a pattern, whether a set or a current, a pattern of relevant ideas as a vantage from which to take care of his occasional commitments. When he can find the current he will swim in it, when he cannot he will accept the set; in either case they will be the ideas which seem to be the furniture of the American liberal imagination; and in either case he tries to make these ideas the tools of positive reaction and response. He does not ask the question in so many words, but his book asks it: What on earth else is the American mind to do in the effort to control the understanding of that new thing in history, the mass urban society? What else can be done in a society committed to universal education which yet at every level distrusts the intellect?

One of the alternatives is to call Mr. Trilling's habit of mind, as R.W.B. Lewis has done, the New Stoicism [see excerpt above]…. Stoicism is a confession of failure and in our society the confession of failure is a howling success. But Mr. Trilling does not confess failure; it is one of the freakish qualities of his mind that he does not make any confessions at all. More formally, I do not believe that Mr. Trilling makes virtue the highest good in any practicable sense; nor does he concentrate on ethics and the control of passions; nor is he indifferent to pleasure and pain; nor does he blot himself out in favor of self-control. He wants only to control what is there; he finds special forms of reality in the quarrel of pleasure and pain; he finds passion a source of thought and the overestimation of virtue a tragic impulse. These are very different matters, and whatever they may be called they ought not to be called stoicism. Nor does he grin and bear it in the Boy Scout adulteration of stoicism. His fortitude, which he shares with the stoic, and most other forms of surviving life, is of a very different order; his fortitude may cut his gains along with his losses out of obstinacy in particulars or weakness in sensibility, but so does any fortitude that rests on choice. He has the fortitude, in his essays, to act by choice as a public (res publica) mind. It is his business to take a position, to react and to respond, between incommensurable forces. He is an administrator of the affairs of the mind. He is everywhere against the passive as he is against escape into the long view or aggression into the moral view. (He quotes approvingly Niebuhr on Kant that the Radical Evil is "man's inclination to corrupt the imperatives of morality so that they may become a screen for the expression of self-love.") There is a world of difference between the kind of acceptance which is a surrender of the insurrectionary and initiatory powers of mind and the kind of acceptance which is an insistence (even when it does not share them) on the conditions of effort and which derives from that insistence the necessity for insurrection and initiative. It is the difference between saying that the job cannot be done and saying that the job must be done over again at the cost of any insurrection and any initiative. It may be that to hold such notions and be without the power of anything but critical action is to be a stoic in fact. To Mr. Trilling it is an aspect of what he calls moral realism; it is a very different thing from the stoicism which Henry Adams used to call moral suicide. Put another way, Mr. Trilling requires the development not the attrition of values in the conflict between morals and experience; and his chief complaint is against the attrition of value after value, often mistaken for the hardening, and sometimes for the prophecy, of value in the contemporary American mind.

It is true that he makes these distinctions chiefly in discussing novelists, but I do not see any radical distinction between the novelist's mind and other minds. He gives us Faulkner and Hemingway as exceptions to the very stoicism which Mr. Lewis fastens upon him; he presents them as writers in whom ideas flourish and the mind has power. The mind in question would seem to be the mind of primitive terror and childhood piety, almost a nightmare piety, and it would seem to me Mr. Trilling gives this mind more credit than it deserves, for it reaches full action in the "moral realism" of the reader, not its own. (pp. 32-4)

No doubt his special form of public mind—more...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Opposing Self and The Liberal Imagination are, of course, all of a piece; to read both books is to see Mr Trilling emerging more clearly than ever before as the guardian of the intellectual class…. As a distinguished member of this class, Mr Trilling in The Liberal Imagination was dismayed to find that the best of modern European literature has been written by men who are indifferent or even hostile to the tradition of democratic liberalism: Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, and Gide 'do not seem to confirm us in the social and political ideals which we hold.' Largely as a result of this fact Mr Trilling has become a divided and reactionary man; he realizes that if one is to concern...

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Joseph Frank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The career and reputation of Lionel Trilling as a literary critic pose something of an anomaly. Not, we should hasten to add, that Mr. Trilling does not deserve all the encomiums that have been lavished on him or the considerable influence he enjoys as a spiritual guide and mentor. But Mr. Trilling is by no means the kind of critic who has dominated the American literary scene since the end of the Second World War. His concern with literature has always been broadly moral and historical—like that of his master Matthew Arnold—rather than more strictly aesthetic or formal—like the group of New Critics who sprang into prominence exactly at the time Mr. Trilling's own star was on the rise. The anomaly posed by his...

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Louis Fraiberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lionel Trilling is one of the few critics of any standing to have actually written at some length on the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature. Aside from the incidental use which he makes of psychoanalytic ideas in the regular course of his criticism, he has several times directed his attention specifically to evaluations of what this relationship has been in the past and may be in the future. In particular, there are three essays which may well serve as milestones in his consideration of the subject. Each constitutes a clear statement of a position—even when the position is somewhat ambivalent—and, taken in chronological order, they show a steady progress toward mastery of the scientific ideas...

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Geoffrey H. Hartman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For more than 30 years], Lionel Trilling has seen literature as a "criticism of life." The phrase comes from Matthew Arnold, and Trilling rightly interprets it to mean that literature is moral rather than moralistic in character, that it always makes its comment on the individual caught up in society or culture. Every person's freedom is affected by the habits and presuppositions of his time, which often sustain him unconsciously; and our culture could not exist for long without the antagonism of what Trilling calls, drawing among others on Hegel, an "opposing self."

Yet Trilling, of course, has no grand philosophy or overview of the conflict between the two powers he isolates: the self and culture....

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Roger Sale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lionel Trilling is probably as famous now as he was twenty years ago, but unless I am much mistaken, his reputation is nowhere near as high as it was in the fifties, the years of The Liberal Imagination and The Opposing Self…. Back then, if this country had a leading literary critic, or, more precisely, a leading literary spokesman, it was Trilling. He was at the center of a number of concentric circles important to the literary intellectual life of the country…. He was one of the best-known "New York intellectuals," by which was usually meant "Columbia" or "the Partisan Review crowd," a group sufficiently coherent in its cultural and political centrality that its enemies, especially the...

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Nathan A. Scott, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Judged against our contemporary standard—which is far less absolute than its "true believers" generally realize—Mr. Trilling's criticism must, it is true, be acknowledged as more than a little "impure." For his interests have most assuredly led him to see literary situations as cultural and moral situations, so much so indeed that he sometimes makes us feel that he—no doubt not in any very highly conscious or programmatic way—regards criticism as a department of philosophy and as most particularly related to that specific philosophical discipline which, by reason of its special concern with the nature and place and prospect of man, in its traditional designation, as "anthropology." Yet, despite the consistency...

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